• What Rituals Across Cultures Reveal About the Human Condition

    Dimitris Xygalatas on the Healing Properties of Risky Behavior

    In a small rural village in mainland Greece, a group of people gather inside a large, ascetic-looking room. Other than some long wooden benches on either side and a small shrine holding a few icons covered in red cloths, the place is mostly empty. But as people begin to gather, it will soon be packed far beyond what seems like its normal capacity. Most of the visitors appear to be familiar with the space and greet each affectionately, albeit solemnly. Yet the mood is not festive. They seem uneasy, almost troubled. As a musician starts playing the lyra (a pear-shaped string instrument played with a bow), everyone stops talking and their faces turn somber.

    Slowly, people begin to swing to the tune, breathing heavily and letting out long sighs of discomfort. They are visibly distraught, although there is no apparent cause. An old woman repeatedly throws her arms in the air and screams loudly, as if trying to fight some invisible nemesis. When people try to comfort her, she pushes them away with sharp hand movements, shouting, “No, no, no!”

    As two large goatskin drums join the lyra, she stands up and begins to move towards the shrine, taking small steps to the rhythm of the music. She picks up a smoking censer, which she carries around the room. As she makes her way through the crowd, people lean towards her to breathe in the smoke. An old man picks up one of the icons and joins her in dancing around the room. One by one, others follow them into a hypnotic improvised dance, carrying the heavy icons around the room.

    The smell of incense now fills the stuffy, overcrowded, overheated chamber, which feels suffocating. The sound of the large drums reverberates so loudly that you can feel their beat in your gut. Before long the dancers are swirling frantically in the crowded hall, sweating, panting, screaming and crying. So strong are these emotional displays that many of the observers in the room are also moved to tears. As for the dancers, they keep going for well over an hour, occasionally collapsing on the floor from exhaustion, only to resume dancing when they have regained their senses. Eventually the music slows and the activity comes to a halt. But not for long. After a brief break the whole process is repeated, again and again, for the better part of three days.

    The fact that ritual does not have a direct impact on the physical world does not mean that it has no impact at all.

    This was the scene I encountered in 2005, the first time I visited the village of Agia Eleni, which would later become the site of my doctoral fieldwork. It is one of a handful of small communities of Orthodox Christians called the Anastenaria, known for their particular devotion to Saints Constantine and Helen. The ecstatic rituals they perform for those saints have played a key role in holding those communities together, even as they faced exile and persecution throughout the centuries.

    The Anastenaria themselves consider this collective dance to be central to their personal and group identity, but they do not see it as a jolly occasion. On the contrary, they experience it as stressful, even agonizing. When asked to describe what it is like, they often use words like “strain,” “struggle” and “suffering.” The very name of these communities comes from the Greek verb anastenāzo, which means “to sigh,” owing to their loud groaning as they dance. Nevertheless, they also describe their experience as a process of profound fulfillment, which can result in spiritual and even physical healing.

    Take, for example, Stella, the elderly woman who led the dance that night. When I asked her why she took part in that ritual, she said: “Because I got sick. I was suffering. If it hadn’t been for the Anastenaria, they would have locked me up [in a psychiatric clinic].” When she was younger, Stella struggled with mental illness. She experienced anxiety and could no longer find any joy in life. She felt tired and did not want to do the household chores. Eventually, she stopped socializing and did not even want to leave the house. She was just idly watching her youth go to waste. “I was sitting in a chair, staring at the window for two years,” she told me.

    Concerned about her situation, her family took her to the city to see a doctor, who confirmed that she was suffering from depression (“melancholia,” as they called it in those days). But at a time when biomedical interventions for mood disorders were just in their infancy, the doctor could not do much to help her. Desperate to find a solution, they called the village elders, and after deliberation they came to the conclusion that she should join the Anastenaria. She did, and it changed her life. She no longer felt depressed.

    Stella’s case is far from unique. Numerous cultures all over the world perform healing rituals. At first glance, such claims may sound dubious, to say the least. If anything, some of those rituals often seem to involve substantial health risks rather than any tangible benefits. But, as we have seen before, the fact that ritual does not have a direct impact on the physical world does not mean that it has no impact at all. It is not just the numerous personal experiences that ethnographers have amassed. A substantial body of research shows that ritual can impact health and well-being in subtle but important ways, and that these impacts can be studied, understood and measured.

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    India is the home of some of the world’s most ancient ritual traditions. It is thus not surprising that a lot of field studies on ritual come from India too. In one such study an international group of researchers examined the effects of participation in Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Originally held as a harvest festival, Diwali celebrates the victory of light over darkness with a five-day observance that includes a series of collective prayers and shared meals and culminates with a firework display.

    In this context the team recruited people who celebrated Diwali in two different metropolitan areas in the northern part of India. They visited them before, during and after the festival, each time carrying out a battery of interviews and surveys to assess their social, mental and emotional well-being. They found that, as the festival unfolded, people were in a better mood, experienced more positive emotions and felt more connected to their community. In fact, these effects started to kick in even before the festival began. The more time people spent engaged in the preparations the better they felt, suggesting that the anticipation of the activities may already have beneficial effects.

    Ritual can impact health and well-being in subtle but important ways, and that these impacts can be studied, understood and measured.

    A similar study was led by anthropologist Jeffrey Snodgrass in the nearby state of Madhya Pradesh, although in a very different setting. Snodgrass conducted two years of fieldwork among some of the Sahariya tribes, who have inhabited the Kuno tropical forest for centuries. When Kuno was designated as a state wildlife sanctuary, all twenty-four of the Sahariya villages in the area were forced to resettle and each family was given a plot of land to cultivate a few miles outside the forest. This brought radical changes in their way of life, as they had to adjust to a new form of subsistence as settled farmers.

    To make matters worse, they became geographically and socially isolated, which made them more vulnerable to raids by bandits and bullying by politically powerful herders. All this had a dramatic impact on their health. The Sahariya suffered acute stress following their relocation and continued to experience chronic stress for the rest of their lives. DNA analyses found that displaced individuals had shortened telomeres (the tips at the ends of chromosomes that protect us from aging and disease). Such premature shortening is an indicator of psychosocial stress and is associated with poor health and reduced life expectancy.

    The Sahariya embrace a mix of indigenous and Hindu beliefs and observe many of the major Hindu rituals. Snodgrass and his team wanted to see whether participation in those rituals would help them cope with distress. To do this, they investigated the health effects of two religious festivals. The first was Holi, also known as the festival of colors, which takes place in March to celebrate the end of winter and the arrival of spring.

    Celebrations start the night before, when Hindus build bonfires and burn effigies of the evil demon Holika. On the day of Holi, people take to the streets to drench each other with water and smear everyone with brightly colored powders. They tease and play pranks on one another, even on those of higher status, as on that day it is acceptable to break social rules that are strictly observed the rest of the year.

    The second event was Navratri, another spring festival, which takes place a few weeks after Holi and is held in honor of various female deities such as Durga, Lakshmi or Saraswati, according to local preferences. It involves various preparations that culminate in two days of processions, praying, dancing and singing, often accompanied by trance and possession states, and followed by communal meals.

    In the context of those two festivals the researchers collected daily saliva samples, which allowed them to measure levels of the hormone cortisol, which increases rapidly when we are stressed. To complement these measures, they also used surveys that assessed symptoms of anxiety and depression.

    In the course of their ethnographic observations the anthropologists noted that social tensions were not uncommon during those festivals. As large swaths of people interacted freely in the streets and at home, there were often frustrations, misunderstandings and even physical fights. But despite those tensions, when the researchers analyzed their data and compared them with baseline measurements collected before each ritual, they found that participation had positive effects on participants’ mental and physiological health. Symptoms of depression and anxiety were dramatically reduced, and their subjective mental and emotional well-being had improved significantly. These subjective improvements were also mirrored in the hormonal data, as cortisol levels dropped after the performance of each ritual.

    Despite the occasional tensions that may arise at any social gathering, festivals like Diwali, Holi and Navratri are joyous occasions, similar to celebrations like Carnival or Mardi Gras. After all, whatever other purposes they may serve, collective rituals have always been a source of public entertainment, providing people with opportunities to put their daily preoccupations aside, make merry and have some fun. It is therefore unsurprising that participation in those events would have positive outcomes.

    The relationship between collective rituals and well-being, however, is not restricted to such euphoric events. In many contexts, rituals that may appear stressful, painful or downright dangerous are often culturally prescribed remedies for a variety of maladies. For example, the Zār ceremony practiced in various parts of Africa and the Middle East, which involves dancing for hours to the brink of collapse, is believed to help practitioners overcome depression, anxiety and various conditions that are attributed to spirit possession; in Mexico, worshippers of Santa Muerte crawl in the dirt on their hands and knees for long distances to implore the deity to cure them of infertility and other problems; in North America, native tribes practice the Sun Dance, a healing ceremony that involves piercing or ripping the flesh; and all around the world, people undertake pilgrimages that push the limits of human endurance as a way of seeking solutions to their problems.

    It is remarkable that in so many contexts these risky practices are often said to have positive health benefits.

    Some might argue that for their practitioners these rituals are not as stressful as they may seem to an outsider. Is it possible that these individuals do not mind the pain or have a higher tolerance for it? In fact, people have often asked me whether there is a masochistic side to these extreme rituals. Could it be that the individuals who are attracted to such practices have a penchant for pain and actually experience it as pleasurable? I do not think this is what is happening, and the anthropological evidence also suggests otherwise.

    People who participate in these rituals typically describe their experience as one of anguish rather than pleasure. Even in cases when ritual performers are expected to display bravery and suppress any signs of discomfort, one only has to look at their faces. Indeed this is what my colleagues and I did in a study of facial expressions in the context of a fire-walking ritual. Using high-definition cameras to record this ritual, we extracted over 2,000 still images of people’s faces as they were walking on burning embers.

    We then showed those photos to independent judges in a laboratory and asked them to evaluate the emotional expressions reflected in those faces. Even as participants in this ritual try to appear unaffected by the stress and pain of walking on burning embers, all the judges were able to recognize their growing agony as their ordeal progressed.

    These findings are also consistent with analyses of biometric data. Every time I looked into people’s physiological states during the performance of such extreme rituals, I was amazed at just how intense their bodies’ reactions were. In some of those rituals, as we have seen, participants’ heart rates spiked at levels that I thought would be impossible in healthy adults.

    Another measure of arousal, electrodermal activity, revealed that during the Thaipusam Kavadi ritual stress levels were orders of magnitude higher than any other stressful event people experienced in their everyday life. And even participants in a piercing ritual performed in the context of a BDSM conference (where one might suspect that participants would find the pain pleasurable) showed tangible signs of suffering. Researchers who collected saliva samples during this event found a 250 per cent increase in levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

    In addition to the pain and stress they cause, many of these traditions carry the risk of injury, scarring or infection. They often take place in the context of massive gatherings, leading to overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions that challenge the immune system and expose practitioners to the risk of communicable diseases. Because of these risks, the World Health Organization has raised concerns about the well-being of pilgrims, and in 2012 the top medical journal The Lancet dedicated a special issue to policy recommendations with regard to such mass gatherings. In light of such serious concerns, it is remarkable that in so many contexts these risky practices are often said to have positive health benefits.

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    Excerpted from Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living by Dimitris Xygalatas. Copyright © 2022. Available from Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Hachette Book Group. 

    Dimitris Xygalatas
    Dimitris Xygalatas
    Dimitris Xygalatas is a pioneering anthropologist and cognitive scientist who runs the experimental anthropology lab at the University of Connecticut. He has been interviewed about his groundbreaking work by the New York Times, the Guardian, PBS, the History Channel, and many other outlets.





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